Closing address by Nelson Mandela at 14th International AIDS conference, Barcelona, Spain

12 July 2002

Thank you for the opportunity to say a few words at the conclusion of this very important conference. We must start by conveying our deep appreciation to all involved in conceiving, organising and making such a success of this conference.

There are many issues I would have liked to touch upon in these few concluding remarks.

One would have wished to speak at length about such issues as the prevention of HIV infection in the youth and the remarkable loveLIfe programme in South Africa; the extraordinary vulnerability of women to HIV infection and the importance of gender issues in the fight against AIDS; issues of poverty and the burden of disease in developing countries; the importance of finding a vaccine and of communities being prepared to participate in large scale vaccine trials; and so forth.

The list goes on and on, but we do not have time to address all of these important subjects. Instead we had to select a few issues which we regard as requiring most urgent attention.

To my mind, nothing can be more heart rending and in need of urgent attention than the case of AIDS orphans who so often find themselves rejected and ostracised by communities. Personally nothing can shake me more than the sight of these innocent young children suffering physically, socially and emotionally as the consequence of actions and behaviour which they had no control over or part in.

There are an estimated 14 million children that have lost one or both parents to AIDS. 80% of these children - i.e 11 million - live in sub-Saharan Africa and 1.8 million in South and South-East Asia.

This is a tragedy of enormous consequences: these children will grow up without the love and care of their parents and most of them will be deprived of their basic rights to shelter, food, health and education. Many will be subjected to abuse, violence, exploitation, discrimination, child trafficking and loss of inheritance.

We have an obligation to provide proper care and support for these children. No adult that can stand by and merely watch while these children suffer. As adults we have collective and individual responsibilities in this regard.

The stigma and discrimination inflicted on these children are atrocious and inexcusable. And likewise, it is inexcusable to subject any person infected or affected by HIV or AIDS to such abuse and rejection. We must therefore tackle the stigma and discrimination associated with HIV/AIDS with even greater urgency. We must show that we care for all those affected by this terrible disease and that we are doing something about it.

In tackling the HIV/AIDS pandemic in a comprehensive and sustained manner, the quality and commitment of leadership is the key to an effective response.

The experience that we have gained in dealing with AIDS shows that effective leadership starts at the top. When the top person is committed, the response is much more effective. This does not only refer to political leadership but to leadership throughout all sectors of society.

This would include top leadership in business, the trade unions, in religious life, in structures of traditional leadership and in NGO's.

And one has to make special mention of the role played by NGO's and the leadership in those organisations. These are often small organisations with meagre resources that have made an impact far beyond what would have been expected from their size. One is often moved to reflect that if only the big institutions of government and business had made a similar effort proportionately we might very well already have turned the tide of the AIDS pandemic.

We have great appreciation for the courageous leadership given by many in all sectors of society in different parts of the world. At the same time I wish to repeat the appeal and challenge I have so often made, calling on all leaders in the world today to ask themselves what they have personally done to help limit the impact of the AIDS pandemic and whatever they have done or not done, to commit themselves to doing more from today.

What is it that the leaders should be doing about AIDS?

We know that prevention and treatment, care and support are inextricably linked - two sides of the same coin - and that we must strive to achieve a balance between them in our struggle against AIDS.

But I want to come back to those orphaned children we spoke about earlier. They are orphans today also because their parents were not able to get access to treatment and most likely because they could not afford it or because they lived in a country which was too poor to provide basic health care.

We know that there are treatments available that restore the immune system, stop the opportunistic infections and return AIDS sufferers to good health - for several years at least. We must find ways and means to make this treatment available to all who need it - regardless of whether they can pay for it, where they live or for any other reason why treatment may be denied.

I have two challenges to put to the world today. The first is to challenge all institutions, public and private, and all their leaders, to make a start towards treatment access today. And to make rapid and real progress in achieving access to AIDS treatment for all those that need it, wherever they may be in the world, regardless of whether they can afford to pay.

We place so much emphasis on treatment quite simply because treatment will provide hope for the future. The great tragedy of HIV infection is that most people - surely more than 90% - do not know that they are infected with the virus. They continue unwittingly to spread the infection. With the hope of treatment people will have a reason to go for HIV counseling and testing- on an entirely voluntary and confidential basis. I believe that this is the single most important prevention tool that we have, because it is the one that is most likely to change behaviour.

My second challenge today is to all individuals. You need to establish where you stand in the in the fight against HIV/AIDS and you can only do this by being aware of your HIV status. For those of you that are HIV positive, there is hope: you can live with HIV, and the rest of the world cares about you. The sooner you establish your HIV status, the more you can do for yourself and the more that can be done for you by others. And if voluntary counseling and testing is not available free of charge where you live, then you must demand it.

As one who had led almost the entirety of his life in a struggle to build a better world, often against odds that were thought insurmountable, I want to say to all of you who are activists in the war against AIDS: "You have my greatest admiration. Keep on fighting and you will overcome this terrible scourge threatening humankind."

In Africa we have a concept known as ubuntu, based upon the recognition that we are only people because of other people. We are all human and the HIV/AIDS epidemic affects us all in the end. If we discard the people who are dying from AIDS, then we can no longer call ourselves people.

As was said at the beginning of the conference by Stefano Vella and Peter Piot: "The quality of future lives depends on the quality of life today".

The time to act is now; we can make a difference.

I thank you.

Source: Nelson Mandela Foundation